Terrific cast elevates predictable ‘Breach…’ at Victory Gardens

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Al’Jaleel McGhee and Caren Blackmore star in “BREACH: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Don’t believe the subtitle.

Antoinette Nwandu’s play “BREACH: a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” has a daunting name, suggesting political proclamations and, through those oh-so-serious lower-case letters, the earnest choreo-poetry of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” But this play is most certainly not a manifesto, and, while not un-serious in subject or story, neither earnestness nor lyricism define its aesthetic strategy.

BREACH: a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate Recommended When: Through March 11 Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $15 – $60 Info: victorygardens.org Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

Instead, “BREACH” is a broad comedy, often even sitcom-ish in style, about a woman whose surprise pregnancy up-ends her life, which she realizes may not have been the life she wanted anyway. It’s a funny and thoughtful work, vitally played by a terrific cast at Victory Gardens. But the writing also feels like it stops digging deeper – for humor or insight — when it advances much beyond its set-up.

We first meet Margaret (Caren Blackmore) and her Caucasian boyfriend Nate (Keith Gallagher) — “I do not date Black guys,” she explains — at a restaurant, celebrating Margaret’s recent sort-of promotion in the English department at the community college where she teaches. Nate is a workaholic, obsessed with the multi-million dollar “number” he wants to earn to give up everything. The most effective amusements of this opening scene involve the characters battling over whose life gets to be the subject of conversation.

Soon after, we meet Rasheed (a genuinely excellent, grounded Al’Jaleel McGhee), the convict-turned-educator (“a liberal’s wet dream,” Margaret says) who happens to be her boss after getting the post she hoped for. Margaret wants nothing to do with him, until he exhorts her to ditch her cynicism and believe that she can make a more positive difference than she believes. Suddenly, they’re kissing.

Karen Rodriguez (from left), Linda Bright Clay and Caren Blackmore in “BREACH: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Karen Rodriguez (from left), Linda Bright Clay and Caren Blackmore in “BREACH: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Next scene: Margaret’s on her toilet taking a pregnancy test, and then trying hard to hide the results from her live-in Aunt Sylvia (a wonderfully crusty turn from Linda Bright Clay).

In some ways, Nwandu’s writing can come off a bit formulaic here, too much like a sit-com. We have a protagonist with two love interests (polar opposites, of course) — a wise old aunt, and a pregnant Mexican cleaning lady (robustly played by Karen Rodriguez) whose earthy humor keeps the laugh-lines coming.

Director Lisa Portes seems to push the accelerator for the comic scenes, and even the design work, with translucent panels that serve up flashy light sequences in between scenes, has a superficial quality.

But there’s underlying sophistication here as well. Margaret is pulled not so much between two men as between two narratives of her own life. There’s the rising-to-riches story, in which she gets a giant rock for her engagement and lives in luxury as the queen in Nate’s kingly dream.

Then there’s something closer to home, a story where she overcomes her cynicism and re-defines her ideas of progress. This life is dedicated to the less lofty pleasures of family first and a career with purpose, and possibly involves taking a risk on a man who has been to prison, who at first seems like everything she believes she was taught – by her aunt who wasn’t always so wise — to distrust and avoid.

Above all, it’s a life where she exists at the center.

Unfortunately, Margaret’s internal journey still feels too broadly sketched, despite a performance from Blackmore that becomes more and more impressive as the play goes on. The character’s leaps in self-discovery are prodded forward with large, late plot developments that come off as inorganic and which happen to Margaret rather than showcase newfound agency.

But there are plenty of joyous sequences in “BREACH” too. There are small moments, for example, when McGhee, who presents the most fully human of the portrayals, finds comedy in Rasheed’s humorlessness. And then there’s Rodriguez’s Carolina, always ready to poke a big hole in anything highfalutin, even that title. “It’s just one woman’s life,” she says as a means of telling a character to stop taking everything so seriously. “It’s not a manifesto on race in America.”

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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